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When Will You Be Back? - Molly Seale

A little girl curled her thin forefinger toward herself, beckoning to me from the sidewalk at the end of our driveway. As I approached her, she pointed behind me to my new home. “That house is haunted,” she whispered in a thick accent.


“Is not!” I objected. “It’s our house. “We live here, so I should know.”


I felt a certain pride in our tiny house, even though my mother disliked it. This distressed me, because I wanted my mother happy. I especially did not want her angry, either with me or my father who, having purchased the house without her approval, was the source of her discontent. “It’s affordable,” he said, but Mother wanted something better.


I was five years old, it was summer in south Texas, and the day before we had moved from a rental house where we lived for a year after relocating from “God’s Country,” as my mother called central east Texas. Although Mother initially liked the idea of living in Corpus Christi on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico, she was disillusioned after our first year there. Mainly, she was homesick for what was familiar.


“What’s your name? the child asked.


“What’s yours?” I asked back.


“Hilda,” she answered.


Hilda, draped in a too-large, faded, print cotton dress, the sash looped loosely about her waist, was silken, quiet, shadow-like. She stood barefoot, her features varying shades of brown, her beauty muted and enchanting, and she smelled of bread baking. Hilda was different, although I didn’t know precisely how. I’d not met anyone like her and I was powerfully drawn to her, sensing an immediate compatibility I’d experienced with no other.


I later learned she was one of six children who lived a few houses down near the circle that joined Franklin Drive—our street—to Easter Drive.


“What is a Mexican girl doing with a name like Hilda?” my mother asked, when I told her I’d found a friend. “Hilda is a German name.”


Hilda played with me in my yard long before I was allowed to play in hers. But eventually I was given permission to play in the drive at her house, the “eyesore” of the block with its peeling paint and grassless, dusty yard. I only went inside once. I followed her through the back door to the kitchen—a large, square, barren room that smelled like her. Her mother, belly swollen with another baby, smashed rounds of dough between her hands and fried them into tortillas, an exotic bread I’d never sampled.


The kitchen opened to the living room which, almost empty of furniture, seemed huge to me. A wooden chair. A metal stool. A rickety floor lamp. The windows and doors, stripped of screens, summoned a breeze that ruffled no curtains, whipped no tablecloths, blew no doilies off side tables. Sparse and austere, it was a light-filled space—airy and expansive, free of clutter—unlike our own little house with its drapes drawn against the summer heat, the window air conditioners incessantly rumbling, the cigarette smoke hovering, the worn furniture crammed too tightly together.


I played outside with Hilda my first year on Franklin Drive. My mother taught private kindergarten at the neighborhood Methodist Church, so I spent mornings in the classroom with her. Although Hilda was my age, she did not attend kindergarten. Instead, she waited patiently at the foot of our drive, waving excitedly when Mother and I arrived at noon, gazing longingly at us as Mother guided me inside for lunch and a dreaded nap.


“When will you be back?” she asked.


“Soon,” I replied.


When I re-emerged in the mid-afternoon, she bobbed up and down like a jack-in-the-box as I dashed to meet her. We strolled in front of my house, holding hands. We climbed the huge tree in my yard. We jumped rope. We played jacks, hide-and-seek and chase. We were reunited, one again, each other’s dearest friend. We needed no one else.


The next year Hilda and I entered first grade together. I met other children from my neighborhood, children who seemed more like me and less like Hilda. I gravitated to them, unconsciously leaving Hilda behind. It seemed she faded away, quietly nudged away by me and my new friendships. We did not sit together at lunch or push each other in the swings on the playground and, after school, I walked home with others and no longer played with her in my front yard as we’d once done. I know I longed for her—her stillness, grace, serenity and shy beauty—but not enough to seek her out or include her in my exclusive circle of little white girls with clean dresses, socks with lace, and shiny patent leather shoes.


She and her family were one of the many Hispanic families who migrated into our neighborhood throughout my childhood. Over the years, the white families fled as the Hispanic families replaced them. We stayed behind, my frugal father refusing to leave our modest home because of white flight. We became isolated in our environment, surrounded by a culture not our own, which intrigued me, but terrified my parents.


Hilda had welcomed me to the block—her tender, kind presence a balm and a gift to me. Unwittingly, I let her go, the unspoken and unrecognized demands and expectations of my childhood pushed her away. Growing more aware of our differences, I became uncomfortable with them and ignorantly eased her out of my life until, finally, I had no idea what became of her.


In the end, my family no longer “fit” in the world of our neighborhood. We became the different ones. Long after I left home for good, my parents packed their belongings and silently slipped away.


Yet I remember Hilda as a beacon, a guide, a comfort, my first true friend. I still hear her plaintive question, “When will you be back?”

 

Molly Seale has published in Hippocampus Magazine, New Millennium Writings, Hotel Amerika, Into the Fire, Connotation Press, and The Write Launch. She lives in Makanda, Illinois.

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